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The Quest Of The Lost Digamma
by [?]

He asked my name in full, middle name and all–as though villainy might lurk in an initial–my hotel, my length of stay in London, my residence in America, my occupation, the titles of the books I sought. When he had done, I offered him my age and my weakness for French pastry, in order that material for a monograph might be at hand if at last I came to fame, but he silenced me with his cold eye. He now thrust a pamphlet in my hands, and told me to sit alongside and read it. It contained the rules that govern the use of the Reading Room. It was eight pages long, and intolerably dry, and towards the end I nodded. Awaking with a start, I was about to hold up my hands for the adjustment of the thumb screws–for I had fallen on a nightmare–when he softened. The Imperial Government was now pleased to admit me to the Reading Room for such knowledge as might lie in my capacity.

The Reading Room is used chiefly by authors, gray fellows mostly, dried and wrinkled scholars who come here to pilfer innocently from antiquity. Among these musty memorial shelves, if anywhere, it would seem that the dusty padding feet of the lost digamma might be heard. In this room, perhaps, Christian Mentzelius was at work when he heard the book-worm flap its wings.

Here sit the scholars at great desks with ingenious shelves and racks, and they write all day and copy excerpts from the older authors. If one of them hesitates and seems to chew upon his pencil, it is but indecision whether Hume or Buckle will weigh heavier on his page. Or if one of them looks up from his desk in a blurred near-sighted manner, it is because his eyes have been so stretched upon the distant centuries, that they can hardly focus on a room. If a scholar chances to sneeze because of the infection, let it be his consolation that the dust arises from the most ancient and respected authors! Pages move silently about with tall dingy tomes in their arms. Other tomes, whose use is past, they bear off to the shades below.

I am told that once in a long time a student of fresher complexion gets in–a novitiate with the first scholastic down upon his cheek–a tender stripling on his first high quest–a broth of a boy barely off his primer–but no sooner is he set than he feels unpleasantly conspicuous among his elders. Most of these youth bolt, offering to the doorman as a pretext some neglect–a forgotten mission at a book-stall–an errand with a tailor. Even those few who remain because of the greater passion for their studies, find it to their comfort to break their condition. Either they put on glasses or they affect a limp. I know one persistent youth who was so consumed with desire for history, yet so modest against exposure, that he bargained with a beggar for his crutch. It was, however, the rascal’s only livelihood. This crutch and his piteous whimper had worked so profitably on the crowd that, in consequence, its price fell beyond the student’s purse. My friend, therefore, practiced a palsy until, being perfect in the part, he could take his seat without notice or embarrassment. Alas, the need of these pretenses is short. Such is the contagion of the place–a breath from Egypt comes up from the lower stacks–that a youth’s appearance, like a dyer’s hand, is soon subdued to what it works in. In a month or so a general dust has settled on him. Too often learning is a Rip Van Winkle’s flagon.

On a rare occasion I have myself been a student, and have plied my book with diligence. Not long ago I spent a week of agreeable days reading the many versions of Shakespeare that were played from the Restoration through the eighteenth century. They are well known to scholars, but the general reader is perhaps unfamiliar how Shakespeare was perverted. From this material I thought that I might lay out an instructive paper; how, for example, the whirling passion of Lear was once wrought to soft and pleasant uses for a holiday. Cordelia is rescued from the villains by the hero Kent, who cries out in a transport, “Come to my arms, thou loveliest, best of women!” The scene is laid in the woods, but as night comes on, Cordelia’s old nurse appears. A scandal is averted. Whereupon Kent marries Cordelia, and they reign happily ever afterward. As for Lear, he advances into a gentle convalescence. Before the week is out he will be sunning himself on the bench beneath his pear tree and babbling of his early days.